Transport Group

The Trial of the Catonsville Nine

The Trial of the Catonsville Nine feature image

The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, in revival at the Abrons Arts Center, is about the Catholic activists who burned 378 draft records with napalm in Catonsville, Md., in 1968, because “pouring napalm on pieces of paper is preferable to pouring napalm on human beings.” Its author, the Rev. Daniel Berrigan, was a member of the Nine and a lifetime antiwar activist. In his play, Berrigan edits and interweaves excerpts of the trial to build arguments against the Vietnam War and U.S. militarism.

David Huynh and Mia Katigbak in  The Trial of the Catonsville Nine . Top: Huynh and Eunic Wong.

David Huynh and Mia Katigbak in The Trial of the Catonsville Nine. Top: Huynh and Eunic Wong.

Over the course of the trial, the group’s members attempted to draw connections between issues, only to be told, “We are not trying that case.” Berrigan cannily demonstrates how all social and political issues are linked, no matter how much the powers that be might wish it otherwise. There is little self-awareness in this hyperbolic play (which, for example, draws parallels between the U.S., with its involvement in Vietnam, and Nazi Germany) but plenty of fervent belief in its own virtue.

Yet the play engages in its own bit of division by almost entirely removing the point of view of the war’s victims in order to celebrate antiwar activists. With a cast of only Asian-American actors, this production, directed by Transport Group artistic director (and Catonsville native) Jack Cummings III and co-produced by the National Asian American Theatre Company, provides a small corrective to the play’s narrow viewpoint.

Actors David Huynh, Mia Katigbak, and Eunice Wong are generous performers. Their well-rehearsed connectivity overcomes Cummings’s hyperactive staging, which seats the audience on spartan wooden pews around the perimeter of the Abrons stage (the theater’s actual seats are unused) and often pulls the actors to opposite corners of the set to bring them nearer to the viewers.

The performers shift characters and locales quickly to accommodate the verbatim format, as witnesses take turns testifying. Unfortunately, these shifts happen so often that each role is given only the most superficial characterization; there’s no time for the internal tensions and oppositions that make a character interesting. Katigbak is best able to find colors in the characters she plays, while Huynh has been directed to deliver every line at a relentlessly humorous, overbearing pitch.

In this he reflects the production as a whole. From R. Lee Kennedy’s blood-red lights, which bathe the space as the actors enter the theater to the accompaniment of Barry McGuire’s 1960s protest classic “Eve of Destruction,” to sound designer Fan Zhang’s Brian Eno–lite score and omnipresent low rumbles, shaking the pews, the evening is monochromatically morose. The subject matter is undoubtedly solemn, but by denying the pleasure of activism, the full-body thrill when the match strikes the napalm, The Trial of the Catonsville Nine has made the Vietnam War the one thing it was not and theater the one thing it should never be: boring.

Huynh and Wong. Photographs by Carol Rosegg.

Huynh and Wong. Photographs by Carol Rosegg.

The evening’s best theatrical moment comes near the end of the play, when the stage curtain on one side and the loading door on the other side drop quickly, cutting the audience off from the outside and blinding them with white-hot lights. Setting aside the hypocrisy of a production with so little self-awareness daring to interrogate and implicate its paying audience, the moment at least packs a visceral thrill. Yet the thrill dissolves when the curtain rises at the end to reveal the empty auditorium filled with haze and more blinding white lights, into which the actors disappear as though passing through the pearly gates. The angry protest music of the actors’ entrance becomes the New Age-y strains of DJ Drez’s sitar-heavy “India Dub” of “For What It’s Worth” (you know: “Stop, hey, what’s that sound, everybody look what’s going down”), and a benign evening honoring activists blossoms into full-blown, tone-deaf hero worship.

Berrigan’s fawning platitude is little better than the propaganda that implores Americans to honor “the troops.” The truth is, we don’t need any play, ever, and it’s past time that productions like The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, which mistake gravitas for gravity and crocodile tears for emotional heft, stop taking that fact for granted.

The Transport Group and the National Asian American Theatre Company’s production of The Trial of the Catonsville Nine plays through Feb. 23 at Abrons Arts Center (466 Grand St.). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; matinees are at 3 p.m. Sundays. For tickets and information, call OvationTix at (866) 811-4111 or visit transportgroup.org.

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Summer and Smoke

Summer and Smoke

Classic Stage Company and Transport Group are taking a fresh look at Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke. Critical estimation of this lyrical drama—the playwright's fourth Broadway outing—has fluctuated since its 1948 premiere. After the original New York presentation, Summer and Smoke seemed destined for obscurity. But Jose Quintero’s 1952 production for Circle in the Square was a triumph and, according to many commentators, marked the birth of Off-Broadway. The current revival, under sure-handed direction by Jack Cummings III, discards the realistic trappings of mid-20th-century American theater and features a nearly ideal cast.

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Strange Interlude

Strange Interlude

Strange Interlude, one of four Eugene O’Neill plays to have won a Pulitzer Prize, is brilliant, magisterial, and provocative. How then, does one actor, David Greenspan, take the complex story of Nina Leeds and the four men in her life, a play that is written in nine acts and spans five hours in the telling, and deliver the highs and the lows, the strange twists of fate, the loves, and the schemes of its characters? Dressed in a dapper three-piece suit, Greenspan is alternately Nina, Charles, Ned and Sam (and three minor characters as well), maintaining an energetic, staccato presence while shifting, sometimes with gunfire rapidity, among these characters. Who would have imagined that this 1928 whale of a play could be acted as a one-man show to riveting effect? Greenspan is extraordinary, and he brings to life an extraordinary play. 

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The William Inge Plays

The William Inge Plays

Halfway through Picnic, the 1953 William Inge comedy-drama playing at Judson Gym (in repertory with Inge’s Come Back, Little Sheba), a hunky vagabond named Hal fidgets disconsolately while posing for a quick-sketch portrait. When the artist, thwarted by Hal’s restlessness, urges him to relax and be “natural,” Hal laments, “Gee, that’s hard.”

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Sleep-Deprived Shenanigans

Back in 1959, the Off-Broadway musical Once Upon a Mattress made a star of Carol Burnett. It’s a broad, farcical show that one might not expect from the involvement of Mary Rodgers, the daughter of Richard Rodgers (the book is by Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller and Marshall Barer; the lyrics by Barer), though her music is as lush with melody as her father’s. For the Transport Group’s production, director Jack Cummings III has cast several notable “downtown” performers in major roles, and the result is goofy, spoofy, cartoonish fun.
 
The show is based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale “The Princess and the Pea.” It’s about a prince, Dauntless the Drab (Jason SweetTooth Williams), who is eager to marry but whose mother, the wicked Queen Aggravain, has an unhealthy inclination to keep him single for life. Dauntless’s father, King Sextimus (David Greenspan), sympathizes with his son but is mute, the victim of a curse that will last “until the mouse devours the hawk.” The prince, meanwhile, chafes at his bachelorhood, as do all the citizens, for nobody can marry till Dauntless does. And desperately in need to marry are heartthrob Sir Harry (Zak Resnick) and his pregnant-but-not-yet-showing girlfriend, Lady Larken (Jessica Fontana).
 
Since this is a fairy tale, the wicked queen (the towering drag performer John Epperson, a.k.a. “Lypsinka,” plays Aggravain) has pre-matrimonial tests. They vary, but they have baffled all comers, and no eligible princesses are left. Desperate, Harry and Dauntless prevail on Aggravain to let Harry seek out spousal possibilities far afield. When he returns from his quest, he has found one in a distant, bog-riddled kingdom: the Princess Winnifred—the part that launched Burnett's career.
 
As Winnifred, the typically freewheeling Jackie Hoffman employs her trademark sarcasm and brashness more sparingly than usual. Known for playing shrill, blowsy characters (e.g. in On the Town and Hairspray), she has a remarkably lovely singing voice and puts it to good use in a song called “Shy” (and she is persuasive as a shy person, even if one knows better) and the second act’s “Happily Ever After.” Although too old for the part (Williams is at least a decade younger), Hoffman conveys a persuasive winsomeness and easily makes one suspend disbelief. After all, a towering man in lipstick is playing the queen—and the juxtaposition of Epperson and Hoffman is a delight to behold.
 
The book isn’t top-drawer and bits are dated—there’s a chauvinist moment when Winnifred advises Larken to apologize to Harry even though Larken is not at fault—but the actors do well by it. Cummings has let Epperson play to and even with the audience at times, and it works, although some of the actor’s schtick wears thin and may depend on one’s tolerance for drag.
 
Rodgers’s score is lovely and varied; in addition to the strenuous dance “The Spanish Panic” and the tuneful “Normandy,” there is the comic number “Man to Man Talk,” when Sextimus in gestures tries to tell Dauntless about the birds and bees.
 
Most notable is “Very Soft Shoes,” a dance for the Jester that’s not really germane to anything. With a combination of ballet and soft shoe (the choreography is by Scott Rink), and Cory Lingner’s terrific performance, the number becomes the closest thing to a show-stopper in this production.
 
While classics by Tchaikovsky and Handel are among the familiar options for entertainment during the holidays, Cummings deserves a hallelujah for spotting the possibilities of Once Upon a Mattress for something a bit different and casting it with first-rate zanies. It fits right in.
 
The musical Once Upon a Mattress plays at the Abrons Art Center (466 Grand St. at Pitt St.) in Manhattan through Jan. 3. Evening performance are at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday-Sunday; matinees are at 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday with the exception of Dec. 20, which has a 3 p.m. matinee). For tickets, call OvationTix at 866-811-4111 or visit the website.
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